Sadamichi Hirasawa (平沢 貞通 Hirasawa Sadamichi , February 18, 1892 – May 10, 1987) was a Japanese tempera painter. He was convicted of mass poisoning and sentenced to death, though he is suspected to have been falsely charged and no justice minister signed his death warrant.
On January 26, 1948 a man calling himself an epidemiologist arrived in a branch of the Teikoku Bank (aka Teigin) at Shiinamachi, a suburb of Toshima, Tokyo, before closing time. He explained that he was a public health official sent by US occupation authorities who had orders to inoculate the staff against a sudden outbreak of dysentery. He gave all sixteen people present a pill and a few drops of liquid. Those present drank the liquid he gave, which was a cyanide solution. When all were incapacitated, the robber took all the money he could find, which amounted to 160,000 yen. Ten of the victims died at the scene (one was a child of an employee) and two others died while hospitalized.
Arrest and trial
Hirasawa was caught by the police due to the Japanese habit of exchanging business cards with personal details. There had been two other extremely similar cases of attempted and actual theft at banks via the use of poison in the weeks and months prior to the robbery. In all cases the poisoner, a lone male, left a business card. The poisoner used a card which was marked "Jiro Yamaguchi" in one of the two incidents, but it was later found that said Yamaguchi did not exist: the card was a fake. The poisoner also used a real card which was marked "Shigeru Matsui" (of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Department of Disease Prevention) in another of the two incidents. The original owner of the card was found to have an alibi. Matsui told the police that he had exchanged cards with 593 people, but of these, 100 were of the type used in the poisoning incidents of which 8 remained in his possession. Matsui recorded the time and place of the business card exchange on the back of cards he received so the police set out to trace the remaining 92 cards. 62 cards were retrieved and their receivers cleared, a further 22 were deemed to have been irrelevant to the case. One of the remaining 8 cards was received by Hirasawa. The police were led to arrest Hirasawa because
- he could not produce the card he had received from Matsui. Hirasawa claimed to have lost the business card together with his wallet due to his having been the victim of pickpocketing.
- a similar amount of money to that stolen from the bank was found in Hirasawa's possession whose origin he refused to divulge. The origin of the money is unknown to this day (though some, such as the famous crime fiction novelist Seichō Matsumoto, suggested Hirasawa received it by drawing Shunga (pornographic pictures), a side business that would have been detrimental to Hirasawa's reputation as an artist).
- being unable to verify Hirasawa's alibi of having been taking a stroll in the vicinity of the crime scene.
- Hirasawa was identified as the poisoner by several witnesses (but only by two survivors, and see picture below).
- He confessed to having been involved in four previous cases of bank fraud (recanted together with his subsequent confession)
He was arrested on August 21, 1948. After police interrogation which allegedly involved torture, Hirasawa confessed, but he recanted soon after. His later defence against confession was based on partial insanity, alleging that he had been troubled with Korsakoff's syndrome (as a result of rabies inoculation) and so his confession was not reliable. The court, however, disagreed and Hirasawa was given the death penalty in 1950. Until 1949, a confession was solid evidence under the law, even if the police tortured a person to extract a confession. The Supreme Court of Japan upheld the death sentence in 1955. His attorneys tried to have the sentence revoked, submitting 18 pleas for retrial over the following years.
Doubt over guilty verdict
He was sentenced to death, but there was originally no conclusive evidence. In addition, although 40 employees saw the crimes, there were only two people who identified him as the criminal. Seichō Matsumoto presumed that the true culprit was Unit 731 in his books A story of the Teikoku Bank Incident in 1959 and The Black Fog of Japan in 1960. Matsumoto also suspected that "the money of unknown origin" came from selling pornographic drawings. Kei Kumai protested Hirasawa's innocence by his film The Long Death in 1964.
Successive Ministers of Justice in Japan did not sign his death warrant, so the death sentence was never carried out. Even Isaji Tanaka, who on 13 October 1967 announced in front of the press that he had signed the death warrants of 23 prisoners in one go, did not sign Hirasawa's death warrant, stating that he doubted Hirasawa's guilt.
The poison was regarded as the readily obtainable potassium cyanide in Hirasawa's trial. One of the reasons given to doubt Hirasawa's guilt is because the victims' symptoms were clearly different from potassium cyanide poisoning, which is rapid. Keio University's contemporary investigation claimed that the true poison may have been acetone cyanohydrin, a military poison deliberately designed to be slow-acting, which Hirasawa could not have obtained.
Death in jail
Hirasawa remained in prison as a condemned criminal for the next 32 years. He spent his time painting and writing his autobiography My Will: the Teikoku Bank Case (遺書 帝銀事件).
In 1981, Makoto Endo became the leader of Hirasawa's lawyers. Besides the case, he took part in controversial trials such as Norio Nagayama. The defense claimed that statute of limitations for his death penalty ran out in 1985. The death penalty has 30-year statute of limitations under the Criminal Code of Japan, and so Endo appealed for his release. However, the Japanese court refused this argument pointing out that the statute only applies in the case if a death row inmate escapes from prison and evades capture for 30 years. Japanese courts judge that the punishment begins when the minister signs the death warrant. His health deteriorated in 1987. On April 30, 1987, Amnesty International petitioned the Japanese government to release him. He died of pneumonia in a prison hospital on May 10, 1987.
After his death
Even after Hirasawa's death, his son by adoption, Takehiko Hirasawa, has tried to clear his name. They submitted a 19th plea for retrial. His brain damage was also proved. As of 2008[update], his lawyers have submitted new evidence to attempt to prove Hirasawa's innocence.
In popular culture
Based on the Hirasawa case is a 2009 novel, entitled Occupied City, by English author David Peace, who was long resident in Japan.
- "Plea of innocence from the grave". The Japan Times. 2003-07-05. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
- "Sadamichi Hirasawa Is Dead; Was on Death Row 32 Years". The New York Times. 1987-05-11. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
- "19th bid to clear late murderer's name". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2003-07-12. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
- "Noose or Pneumonia?". Time. 1963-02-15. Retrieved 2008-02-09.
- "Obituary - Kei Kumai". Reed Business Information. 2007-05-24. Retrieved 2008-02-03.
- "Fight to clear mass-killer's name unending". The Japan Times. 2008-01-23. Retrieved 2008-02-03.
- "Experts doubt Teigin Incident verdict". The Japan Times. 2006-11-26. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
- Unit 731: Testimony Google Books. via Tuttle Publishing. pp. 119-120 by Hal Gold (1996) ISBN 4-900737-39-9
- "Japan Hanging on to Death Penalty". South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. 2003-04-23. Retrieved 2008-02-06.
- "Endo, chief lawyer in 'Teigin Incident,' dies at 71". CNET Networks. 2002-01-28. Retrieved 2008-02-09.
- "Court Refuses to Free A Death Row Japanese". The New York Times. 1985-05-31. Retrieved 2008-06-02.
- Shigeko Segawa (2008-02-25). "Death-row inmate had brain damage". Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved 2008-03-14.
- Hirano, Keiji, (Kyodo News), "25 years after Teigin convict's death, exoneration efforts continue", Japan Times, 8 June 2012, p. 3
- Seicho Matsumoto, A story of the Teikoku Bank Incident, 1959
- Seicho Matsumoto, The Black Fog of Japan, 1960
- J.H.H. Gaute and Robin Odell, The New Murderer's Who's Who, 1996, Harrap Books, London
- Teigin jiken: Shikeishû at the Internet Movie Database
- Noose or Pneumonia? Time February 15, 1963
- Sadamichi Hirasawa Is Dead; Was on Death Row 32 Years New York Times May 11, 1987
- 19th bid to clear late murderer's name Sydney Morning Herald, July 12, 2003
- Psychiatrist, 100, fights to clear late convict's name Japan Times May 10, 2006
- Art of 'Teigin Incident' convict to be exhibited Japan Times November 23, 2006
- Experts doubt Teigin Incident verdict Japan Times November 26, 2006
- Art exhibition launched to clear Hirasawa's name Japan Times April 4, 2007
- Teigin Incident artist exhibition tour starts Japan Times May 19, 2007
- (Japanese) Teigin Case - Homepage created by his supporters
- (Japanese) Teigin Case Timeline